Orders of the Day — Commission for Industry and Manpower Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th April 1970.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Edmund Dell Mr Edmund Dell , Birkenhead 12:00 am, 8th April 1970

We have not had very much from the Opposition during the course of the day about the Bill, with the exception of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke), who is very experienced in these matters and with whose comments I shall deal later.

I must say, with respect to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mitcham (Mr. R. Carr) and the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Dudley Smith), that my main feeling during the day has been how much I missed the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph). I believe that he would have spoken about the Bill and, if voting against it, would have given good reasons for it. The Opposition's failure to indicate with any conviction their reasons for opposing the Bill shows that they are equivocal in their attitude to competition, as, indeed, has been shown on many occasions in their history when some of them have wished to take action to promote competition.

It is appropriate that it should have been the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington who summed up this evening for the Opposition, because only a few weeks ago I had the honour to introduce into the House the first Order on information agreements relating to prices and terms and conditions specified under the Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1968, and the hon. Gentleman gave that Order, which was a major advance in the field of competition, what he himself called a guarded welcome. He had to be rebuked by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen for that lukewarm welcome to a major advance.

The reason, apparently, which was to be presented to the House for voting against the Bill was that the Opposition had new and radical ideas about competition, of which they were to give us an inkling. When my right hon. Friend made a few preliminary remarks about what we had read of those ideas, we were told that we only had to wait for the right hon. Member for Mitcham in order to hear what those new and radical proposals were.

What were those new and radical proposals? The right hon. Gentleman is disappointed that in the Bill there is no power to reduce tariffs. Does he really think that in this Bill we need power to reduce tariffs? Does he think that there is no legislation under which we can reduce tariffs if it will help the competitive situation and it is desirable to do so?

The Opposition's major new radical proposal is for a registrar of monopolies—as the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) so appropriately said, this Archangel Gabriel who is to act in this field.

But that is not such a new idea. It was proposed in the 1964 White Paper. Indeed, in the conditions of 1964 and 1965 there were some arguments for it, because we wanted more speed in conducting references, and that we have achieved. We wanted more references—and the Opposition's pitiful record in the making of references has been indicated by my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Barnett)—and we had more references.

It was felt also by those who drafted the 1964 White Paper that it was necessary to improve the procedure of the Commission in order to give it a greater appearance of fairness, although the 1964 White Paper stated that that point rested to some extent on a misconception. On the point of procedure, we have clearly indicated that in this legislation we have every intention of ensuring that the procedure will be, and will be seen to be, fair, and we are discussing that point of procedure with Confederation of British Industry. It is vital that the Commission should be fair and should be seen to be fair.

Now there is another idea. The 1964 White Paper said that the Registrar of Monopolies should have a certain responsibility, subject to Board of Trade approval, for referring monopolies. It did not say that the Registrar of Monopolies should have the power of referring mergers. The 1964 White Paper was specific on this point. It said that the Board of Trade would have that power. The right hon. Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath), in the debate on the White Paper, was specific on this point. He said that the Government would have that power. When the Monopolies and Mergers Bill of 1965 was introduced, again it was made clear from the Opposition benches that the power of referring mergers would rest with the Government. The same point point was made by the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East on 10th November, 1969 in col. 99.

In other words, this is a departure from those statements. It is not a bad idea because it is a departure, but one would have expected, if this departure were to be made, that there would have been some understanding of the associated issues involved. In my intervention, I asked the right hon. Gentleman certain specific questions, and I expected him to answer those questions because they were germane to this point. He said there would be a criterion, and I asked him what it would be. I asked him whether the £5 million asset test would continue and whether there would be power to hold up mergers pending the inquiry. The right hon. Gentleman answered none of these questions saying that his hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington would give the answer, but he did not. The answers were not given because these matters have not been thought out.

This idea was evidently worked out at a Shadow Cabinet meeting the other night. The Opposition had to decide on a reason for opposing the Bill, and they had to present themselves to the country as champions of competition. They would be voting against a Bill which was dedicated to increasing competition, and they had to have a reason for this. So they went back to their history books and revived the idea of the Registrar of Monopolies, without thinking out in specific terms what was involved in that proposal or what was involved in their proposals for the control of mergers generally.

The Opposition say that if this system is introduced and there is a registrar of monopolies who will refer mergers, ministerial discretion will be avoided. They go on to say that, because of the great difficulty of establishing criteria, there will be a Government veto: in other words, there will be Ministerial discretion. If they are really interested in using a control over mergers to preserve competition, there must be a £5 million asset test. It is useless to limit oneself to cases which involve the creation of a monopoly or the intensification of a monopoly; one must also be concerned with the preservation of competition——